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Professor uses 3D printing to address birth control and HIV prevention worldwide


Rahima Benhabbour, an assistant professor in the UNC and N.C. State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering, created a startup called AnelleO with 3D printing technology. Photo courtesy of Sarah Daniels.

Rahima Benhabbour is an academic, a former postdoctoral fellow at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy and an assistant professor in the UNC and N.C. State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering. 

Women's health care entrepreneur is her latest title. 

Intravaginal rings, or IVRs, are a common form of birth control for women globally, protecting against unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. 

Benhabbour created her startup, AnelleO, based on the realization that IVRs are often only available in a single size. 

She said she recognized, however, that female anatomy changes with age: an adolescent girl needs a different sized ring than a middle-aged woman with children.

Now with 3D-printed technology, Benhabbour and her team have the ability to design IVRs in varying sizes with different shapes to fit different bodies. 

“We are not intending to make a ring for every woman,” she said. “It would be almost impossible.” 

Instead, Benhabbour said the she is working to develop three distinct sizes. 

BeAM Director Kenny Langley said he has observed that professionals are finding different, creative ways to use 3D printers, especially in the medical field. 

“It allows for rapid prototyping,” he said. “It allows people to move through a project more quickly and more cheaply in order to find a solution.”

Benhabbour first started developing AnelleO after watching a TED Talk by Joseph DeSimone, CEO of 3D manufacturer Carbon,  on the mechanics of 3D printing. Benhabbour said she was struck by the complex geometry of DeSimone’s printed pieces and wondered if that technology could be used to create IVRs. 

Benhabbour said she has a history of prior experience developing medical devices. The size, design, material and drug compatibility of her new IVR device, she said, were top considerations. 

“It’s a novel application of the 3D printing technique,” Eshelman School of Pharmacy professor Kristy Ainslie said. 

Benhabbour said she is translating her energy to AnelleO PRO, a progesterone-releasing ring that can help women struggling with infertility. This form of reproductive technology, she said, has the potential to replace traditional hormone injections for more than one million women. 

Benhabbour said she recognizes that there are two markets for the 3D-printed IVRs. 

In terms of business, Benhabbour said there is a for-profit avenue to solve first world medical needs, including her progesterone-releasing ring that might help women struggling with infertility. 

But philanthropically, Benhabbour said she hopes to focus on HIV and STD prevention, perhaps partnering with bigger pharmaceutical companies. 

“Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia are the target population," Benhabbour said. 

The multipurpose aspect of her contraceptive and HIV protection ring, she said, can make it more attractive to women across cultures. She said it takes some of the social stigma away from sexually transmitted diseases.

Langley said he expects that technology like Benhabbour’s will become cheaper with time, and ultimately more commonplace and accessible. 

Benhabbour’s startup has received a grant from the School of Pharmacy's Eshelman Institute for Innovation. She also received recognition with The Kickstart Venture Services Commercialization Award. 

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“Without support, I wouldn’t get very far,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how good of an idea it is.”

When describing her product, Benhabbour came back to one word — multipurpose. AnelleO, she said, tackles several issues with women's reproductive care all in one 3D-printed ring.